Alpine joins Marfa in plans to update short-term rental rules

“We’re not wanting to go out and just write a whole bunch of tickets,” Alpine city manager Erik Zimmer said of proposed STR rules. But “we do want to understand who the operators are."

ALPINE — For weeks, Marfa city officials have discussed new proposed rules on short-term rentals — and now, Alpine is doing the same. At an Alpine City Council meeting last week, officials discussed a new proposed ordinance on the rentals, which the city first started considering in March before the coronavirus pandemic.

Unlike Marfa, Alpine isn’t considering putting limits on the number of short-term rentals in town. Still, the city has faced some of the same challenges as Marfa, including a shortage of affordable housing and short-term rental owners who don’t register their property or pay hotel occupancy taxes.

Alpine first adopted rules around short-term rentals in 2015, while current City Manager Erik Zimmer was serving his first stint in the same role. The city asked owners to seek a conditional-use permit for those rentals, which Marfa is now considering. Those owners also had to pay a fee of $350 every other year.

Zimmer moved away from Alpine in 2017 before returning to city government in 2019. In the time since, he said in an interview on Monday, the number of vacation rentals has grown from around a dozen to more than 70.

At the same time, the city has faced some of the same regulation challenges as Marfa, with vacation-rental owners not paying required fees or sometimes not registering at all.

“As much as people say, ‘We’ll be honest,’ the reality is that two-thirds are,” Zimmer said. “The other third aren’t.” Even so, there appears to be less of an appetite for stymieing the short-term rental industry in Alpine. If anything, the new ordinance might even reduce fees and red tape — for example, by lowering the cost to operate a short-term rental to a $100 annual fee.

The city is also considering rules limiting street parking for short-term rental visitors and other minor changes. But the main goal of the ordinance, Zimmer said, is to establish clear and simple rules that make it easier to go after violators.

“We’re not wanting to go out and just write a whole bunch of tickets,” Zimmer told the council. But “we do want to understand who the operators are, and we do want to make sure that they register and are paying their hotel occupancy taxes.”

In Marfa, where city officials have for weeks workshopped a proposed new short-term rental ordinance, those discussions have led to strong feelings on both sides.

At virtual meetings, short-term rental owners and managers in Marfa have argued they’re a core part of Marfa’s tourist economy and that city officials are playing with fire by adding regulations to the industry. Other residents, meanwhile, have argued that other local businesses like restaurants are regulated and that short-term rental properties take housing stock away from long-term residents.

Researchers who have studied these issues generally agree that short-term rentals put pressure on housing stock, and by extension push out long-term renters, as The Big Bend Sentinel reported last month. But in the case of tourist towns like Marfa — where many homes are second homes already — others argue that these properties were never going to be rental options. And cities do undeniably see an economic boost from tourists, both through hotel fees and vacation spending at local shops.

Chris Ruggia, the Alpine tourism director, has workshopped the new proposed rules with hotel and rental owners. He thinks there’s a few reasons why the topic prompts less strong feelings in Alpine.

For one thing, he says, Alpine is a bigger city and has more housing stock to begin with. “I would posit that in South Brewster County, Terlingua, Study Butte and Marfa, there’s a lot more pressure on the housing stock,” he said.

For another, while Marfa often attracts upper-income tourists, visitors in Alpine are more likely to be middle-class tourists taking family trips to the Big Bend. That could make the proliferation of vacation rentals less galling for residents, he says, because the families who rent out homes as vacation rentals don’t seem so different from the families who might rent Alpine homes full time.

For now at least, Alpine city officials seem more interested in expanding the total housing stock rather than reducing the number of short-term rentals. At the city council meeting last week, Zimmer outlined some projects that he said could improve affordable-housing options in the city.

But if the number of short-term rentals continues to grow, those dynamics could change. In his presentation, Zimmer said a lack of affordable housing was limiting Alpine’s growth and should be a “top concern” for 2021. And he was blunt about the role vacation rentals play in these trends.

Increasingly, property owners are realizing they “can make more money in the short-term rental market, so they flip [their houses] over,” Zimmer said. And as “the supply goes down,” for long-term rentals there’s more demand for the increasingly fewer available units, causing property-owners to “start pushing their prices up.”

So far, Alpine city officials have just discussed the new proposed rules and have taken no action. But the topic — including a first reading of the ordinance — will likely come up at the city council’s next meeting in January.